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Backpacker's guide to the outback

The ultimate backpacker bucket list: 10 of the best outback experiences.

By Lee Atkinson

There are hundreds of only-in-Australia experiences waiting to be discovered in the vast red outback. If you don’t have time to do them all, here are 10 you must do.

See a sunset at Uluru

Uluru, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Red Centre, Northern Territory

Top of any outback bucket list is watching the setting sun paint one of Australia's most instantly recognisable landmarks – Uluru – in various shades or orange, red, mauve and blue. It’s the outback's most mesmerising light show. Stay at Outback Pioneer Lodge for AUD$38 a night.

Walk the rim of Kings Canyon

Kings Canyon, Alice Springs region, Red Centre, Northern Territory

Peering over the edge of Kings Canyon more than 100 metres (109 yards) above the desert floor is an experience you'll never forget. The view as you walk around the rim is worth the walk to get up there. Entry to the national park is free and Kings Canyon Resort has backpacker lodge accommodation from AUD$49. 

Swim in a desert waterhole

Simpsons Gap waterhole, Alice Springs, Red Centre, Northern Territory

Hire a bike in Alice Springs and cycle to Simpsons Gap on the bike path. It's a 17 kilometre (11 mile) ride each way along a sealed path. If you're lucky you might even spot a euro wallaroo (a small cousin of the kangaroo) on the way. Cool off with a swim in the waterhole inside the gorge. Bike hire costs AUD$40 for a full day (or you might get an even cheaper deal from your Alice Springs hostel).

Walk beside the oldest river on Earth

Glen Helen Gorge, Alice Springs region, Red Centre, Northern Territory

The Finke River is said to be the oldest river in the world. It carves its way through sheer red rock walls at Glen Helen Gorge, about 138 kilometres (86 miles) west of Alice Springs, forming a sacred pool. Take a walk beside the river at dusk to watch the birds and other wildlife congregate at the water's edge. Glen Helen Resort has backpacker accommodation from AUD$35.

Ride a camel into the desert

Pyndan Camel Tracks, Alice Springs, Northern Territory

There's no better way to explore the ethereal desert landscape around Alice Springs than from the back of a swaying camel. You'll be following in the tracks of the explorers and pioneers. The AUD$70 sunset tour into the West MacDonnell Ranges with Pyndan Camel Tracks is a spectacular way to see the colours of the outback come to life.

Sleep underground at Coober Pedy

Coober Pedy, Flinders Ranges, South Australia

Sleeping underground in a dug-out room is a new experience for most people, though not for the locals in Coober Pedy, who do it every day. Most of the homes in this outback opal mining town are underground – it’s a great way to beat the sizzling summer heat. Shop for opals at local prices, explore working opal mines, see Faye's Underground Home - hand dug by three women in the 1960s (check out the swimming pool in the underground lounge room) and experience an extraordinarily different way of life. Radeka Downunder Dugout Motel & Backpacker Inn has underground beds from AUD$35. 

See an outback rodeo in Mount Isa

Mt Isa Rodeo, Mt Isa, Outback Queensland

Watch the country's best cowboys (and cowgirls) in action at the Mount Isa Mines Rotary Rodeo, the largest and richest rodeo in the Southern Hemisphere. Held every August, it's outback Queensland’s biggest event, with more than 615 competitors hoping for a slice of AUD$200,000 prize money over three days of classic rodeo events. There are also mardi gras parades, fashion festivals, market stalls, carnival rides, arena tours, bush poet breakfasts, a boxing show and country music concerts once the sun goes down. Tickets start at AUD$40, and a dorm room at the Travellers Haven Backpacker Hostel costs AUD$30. Getting there is easy by bus, plane or train from Brisbane.

Cruise with crocodiles in Kakadu

Yellow Water cruise, Kakadu National Park, Top End, Northern Territory

Looking a wild crocodile in the eye is an exhilarating moment. You'll have plenty of opportunities to get a close-up look at these awesome predators in their natural habitat on a Yellow Water Cruise in Kakadu National Park, from AUD$72. Other reasons to go to Kakadu include ancient Aboriginal rock art galleries, wetlands brimming with birdlife, natural swimming pools perched on clifftops and thundering waterfalls. Hire a campervan and camp or join a tour from Darwin. 

Swim beneath a waterfall

Florence Falls, Litchfield National Park, Top End, Northern Territory

If you've ever dreamed about swimming beneath a waterfall deep in a forest, you'll love the wild plunge pools of Litchfield National Park, 120 kilometres (75 miles) south-west of Darwin. There are half a dozen perfect swimming spots, the most popular of which is Wangi Falls. You can camp here or stay in a bunkhouse for about AUD$35 at the nearby Litchfield Tourist Park.

Paddle the Katherine River

Katherine River, Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge, Nitmiluk National Park, Top End, Northern Territory

Enjoy the peaceful beauty of drifting through a river gorge so old that it would have looked exactly the same when dinosaurs roamed. You can join a boat cruise on Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park, near the town of Katherine in the Top End, but gliding in a canoe along the ancient waterway is the ultimate way to appreciate the area's peaceful beauty. You can hire a double canoe for about AUD$40 per person. 

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